What is a ‘Freegan’? Understanding Dietary Vocabulary

freeganWind the clock back twenty years and most people, except perhaps a small proportion of vegans, would have described themselves as either vegetarian or, in the vast majority of cases, simply somebody who doesn’t exclude any major food groups. In recent years, however, eating habits and attitudes have changed considerably, and as a result, a flurry of new words have come into use.

One of these words is freegan. A freegan is a person who only eats food that they can get for free and that would usually be thrown out or wasted:

He is a freegan who claims to have subsisted on a largely Dumpster-based diet for a decade.

Maybe it’s time to give the freegan lifestyle a try.

As well as freegan lifestyle, corpus evidence shows that freegan is commonly used as a modifier in a number of other expressions. You can be part of a freegan community or the freegan movement, get a freegan box (= a box containing food that would otherwise be wasted), go to a freegan restaurant, and even have a freegan wedding.

Dumpster diving, which appears in a Culture note at Dumpster™ in the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary online, is a term that often crops up in the same context as freegan. This is the practice of taking things such as clothing, furniture and food from skips (BrE) or Dumpsters (NAmE) so that it can be used again:

Freegans are best known for recovering discarded food from commercial establishments, a practice known as ‘Dumpster diving’ […]

Some freegans and Dumpster divers are motivated by the desire to be eco-friendly and to participate as little as possible in the established economic system, while others simply want to save money.

From a linguistic perspective, freegan is a portmanteau word as it is formed by combining two words – free and vegan. The verb freecycle, derived from the name of an online service, also relates to the idea of minimizing the amount we consume as a society. A combination of the words free and recycle, it means to give something used or unwanted away as opposed to selling it or throwing it away, especially using the internet. Flexitarian is another portmanteau word that describes somebody who follows a particular type of diet. Flexitarians are ‘flexible vegetarians’ in the sense that they sometimes eat meat or fish, but usually avoid these types of food.

Some people now embrace clean eating, which means eating only certain foods with the aim of becoming or staying healthy. Other terms used to describe dietary practices that have recently gained in popularity include fruitarian, a person who eats only fruit, and pescatarian, somebody who doesn’t eat meat but eats fish – both formed on the same model as vegetarian; and locavore, a person who mainly eats food that is locally grown or locally produced, which follows the same pattern as carnivore, herbivore and omnivore.

Perhaps you’re a vegan freegan or a flexitarian locavore, or maybe you’re a plain old omnivore – whatever the case, there’s no denying that vocabulary we use to describe our eating habits reflects the fact that we’re becoming ever more mindful of what we put on our plates. Of course, people still change their dietary habits for health reasons or out of concern for animal welfare, but the focus seems to be shifting. The common denominator across most recent dietary trends is the desire to protect the environment. And as more and more of us choose to adopt a diet for a healthy planet, watch this space for more new terms to describe what people include or exclude from their diet (I’m looking at you, cheagan and veggan!*).

*cheagan = a ‘cheating vegan’, who usually eats vegan food, but sometimes eats meat, fish, dairy products or eggs; veggan = a person who avoids all of the foods that a vegan doesn’t eat, except for eggs

Leonie Hey is a Senior Editor in OUP’s ELT Dictionaries department. She taught English in Sardinia and worked as a language teacher in the UK before joining OUP in 2011. She is a non-freegan lacto-ovo-vegetarian and an all-round lover of good food.

This article was first published on 31 October 2017 on the Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries blog.

Author: Oxford University Press ELT

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